For breeders who have experienced the joy of the birth of a healthy singleton puppy, along with this joy come concerns about the inability of that singleton to receive proper socialization in the absence of littermates.
Lack of “normal” litter socialization can lead to a variety of idiosyncratic personality traits, ranging from minor to more serious issues that can create mild to sometimes severe problems, where the puppy feels he is the center of a universe he does not want to share with another being.
I have had experience raising four singletons—three from AI breedings, and one from a live cover. The dams were not directly related.
In two of the three AI litters (which I bred), the singleton was the only puppy developing in the womb. In the third AI litter, the resulting puppy had a littermate who died at birth, so he was not alone in the uterus. In the live-cover litter (bred by someone else), the singleton was the sole survivor from a litter of three—so again, was not alone in the womb.
I stress this latter point because it is an extraordinarily important factor for a singleton. Having littermate(s) share the uterus eliminates the potential for singleton problems of “owning the universe.”
The “cause” of a singleton birth is most likely not genetic. Most often it is probably the result of breeding too late; that is, breeding at the very end of the fertile period, when very few eggs are available for fertilization—or maybe only one. There are many other possible causes. These include an infection; an older dam who did not produce many eggs, even at the height of her fertile period; and/or eggs that were resorbed.
A properly taken ultrasound can show the dam is in whelp, but the number of puppies actually born can change if some or all are resorbed after the ultrasound was taken. Exact factors causing resorption of a developing fetus remain a mystery known only to Mother Nature.
My first litter was a singleton. Since it was my first, I had no idea how important littermates were in the mental and physical development of a puppy. I read as much as I could, talked to as many breeders as I could, and worked exceedingly hard at socializing my puppy in as many ways as I could.
However, it wasn’t enough. I learned you can never replace, replicate, simulate, or duplicate the myriad things a puppy learns from littermates.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I bred my second litter, that I could vividly (and sadly) see just how much that singleton had missed because of not having littermates while growing in the uterus and after birth.
When my second singleton, Reigna, was born, I immediately knew I had to find a “foster litter” for her. I knew littermates were imperative to her proper development if any could be found.
Having a foster litter for a singleton to visit is by far the best for socialization purposes, especially if the foster pups are near the same age as the singleton. If the foster litter is too old, the potential for the young singleton to be injured increases. Separating the singleton from her mom and introducing her to a new mom and litter require thought and planning.
Reigna visited her foster litter as soon as she could be away from her mom for short periods. I decided on 3½ weeks, an age when (1) she did not have to be with Mom to keep her body temperature constant; (2) she did not have the need to nurse so often; (3) her ears and eyes were open; and (4) she was up on her legs, scooting around.
I call this part of the story “Reigna and the Redheads.” A friend had a litter of Irish Setters who were days older than Reigna. She generously offered, “Bring her to visit as often as you want.”
So began a fascinating and exciting learning saga for me, and life-changing experiences for Reigna. It was incredibly awe inspiring to watch this experiment unfold.
I began the weaning process a bit early with Reigna so she could be away from Mom. (The nursing turned out not to be an issue, as “Redhead Mom,” Brandy, accepted Reigna as her own and let her nurse with the gang of redheads.)
Reigna’s own mom was very concerned when I took her puppy away. This was the hardest part in establishing what would become a routine five to seven days a week — for a few hours, then a half-day — until Reigna was 3 months old. Reigna had to adjust to being away from her Mom and her familiar smells and surroundings, and to a new whelping box, five red foster littermates, and a big, red foster mom—Brandy!
What I learned from this very first visit with the redheads was so astounding that I videotaped it.
Reigna was understandably overwhelmed, through not terrified. I did not put her in the whelping box with the redheads, who were very accepting and nonaggressive, until the end of the visit. The redheads were six days older than she, and they were larger and had more-developed play patterns and body movements. I put Reigna outside the box, on the floor, on a “scented cloth” (see below), in plain view of the pups—but mostly for the sake of Mom Brandy to get used to an interloper and not feel threatened.
Brandy was just as sweet, loving, and accepting as she could be. She thoroughly sniffed Reigna and tilted her head as though thinking, Hmm, I didn’t think there was another one—especially a black one—where could this one have come from?
Brandy’s owner presented Reigna to Brandy by holding her out to be examined, sniffed, and licked. It was important that the owner, and not I, present Reigna to Brandy so that Reigna was associated with a familiar human scent. Prior to this, we had taken a clean cloth and wrapped several of the Redhead pups in it and rubbed them to get their scent on the cloth. Then I rubbed Reigna with the “scented cloth” so that when she was presented to Brandy, Reigna was wrapped in the scented cloth and had a familiar odor, not a foreign or potentially threatening one.
We repeated this “sniffing exercise” several times in the course of an hour. After each, Reigna was placed back outside the box, on the cloth, for Brandy to “monitor.”
At first Reigna was quiet, a huddled lump. Gradually, she began to look around. When it was clear that Brandy was not going to be alarmed by Reigna (Mom did not even get out of the box), we placed her inside the box.
Again Reigna was a black, huddled lump. The redheads were very curious: they sniffed Reigna, jumped on her, pawed and pulled her ears, bit her neck, pushed her, and tried to play with her as with their own littermates.
Reigna did not respond. Being a singleton, she had no idea what they were doing. She let them crawl on her. Then they all piled together, with Reigna, and slept.
After the nap, Reigna got bolder, guardedly getting to her feet, and she slowly blossomed.
Thus the three-hour first visit ended. But what happened at home, when I placed Reigna in her own whelping box, with her stuffed black and tan surrogate puppy toys, is what was so utterly astounding: Reigna mirrored exactly what her foster littermates had done to her with her stuffed toys! She pulled their ears, bit their neck, pawed them, pushed them, licked their face, and piled on them. With just one visit, it was abundantly clear just how much Reigna was going to learn from her foster littermates,and just how exceedingly important what I was doing was to Reigna’s development, mentally, emotionally, and physically. She had, with just one visit, learned how to interact and play.
After the first visit, concerns about being away from her mom for nursing vanished. “Irish Mom” took Reigna as her own and fed her with the redheaded gang. Initially, worry from Reigna’s mommade establishing the six-day-a-week visit routine difficult.
We continued Reigna’s foster visits until she was 3 months. She thought she was a redhead, and touchingly, she always had a deep affinity for her “redheaded relatives” and foster mom. She had to learn she was a Gordon!
After our first visit with the redheads, I knew the effort I was making was going to be well worth it.